American Transportation Corporation (better known as AmTran) was a builder of school buses in the United States. Founded in 1980, the company traces its roots back to Ward Body Works, which was established in 1933. AmTran was acquired by Navistar International in 1994-1995, a move that would begin a series of alignment between school bus body manufacturers and chassis suppliers. In 2000, the company was rebranded as International Truck and Bus. (Some models were still labeled AmTran.) In 2002, the name was changed again to IC Corporation, and today is known as IC Bus.
During the late 1970s, the school bus manufacturing industry was in relative turmoil. A key factor that had driven school bus sales for the past two decades was no longer in place; by 1982, all of the baby boomers would have completed their elementary and secondary education. At the time, Ward was among "the Big Six" full-line school bus manufacturers (Blue Bird, Carpenter, Superior, Thomas, and Wayne). The declining economy of the late 1970s also cut into the profitability of all school bus manufacturers; of the Big Six, Superior and Ward were the hardest hit. Ward survived by providing low cost buses and had a seemingly better system between its management and workers.[clarification needed]
AmTran: New Player, Established Brand (1980-1990)
In July 1980, Ward Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; at the time, the family-owned company had $21.5 million in debt. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was instrumental in forming a group (MBH, Inc.) that purchased the assets of Ward Industries. MBH was an acronym for the first letters of the last names of each of the 4 investors: Thomas E "Mack" McLarty, J.W. "Buddy" Benafield and two Kansas City brothers, R.L. "Dick" Harmon and Robert Harmon. McLarty and Benafield each held ⅓ ownership; the Harmon brothers together held the remaining ⅓ ownership.
In 1981, American Transportation Corporation started to do business as AmTran Corporation (a shortened version of American Transportation). Rather than be forced to build a new brand identity in the highly competitive school bus market, the Ward name was retained throughout the 1980s due to its established brand identity. AmTran's non-school bus products (commercial bus derivatives of school buses) bore the AmTran brand name from 1981. In 1983, the Harmon brothers, two Kansas City-based school bus contractors, purchased a controlling interest of AmTran. The Ward family held no stake in AmTran, instead handling the product distribution, owning a school bus dealership in Conway, Arkansas into the 2000s.
Product-wise, AmTran did not change many things from the Ward product lineup. Early in the 1980s, AmTran ended production of its Type B product to introduce the Ward Patriot. Although technically a Type C, the Patriot combined design elements of Type B, C, and D buses. It was available in both the same passenger capacities as its Type B predecessor as well as the full-size Volunteer conventional. Although it was not a success, the Patriot heavily influenced the later Thomas Vista.
In 1987, the structure of the AmTran body design was changed to add an extra rubrail right below the window line. Much of the structure is still used in today's IC Bus product lineup.
A Navistar Company (1991-2002)
Mid-1990s AmTran Genesis (retired)
In 1991 Navistar International purchased one-third interest of American Transportation Corporation. The action was initiated by Jerry Williams, AmTran's CEO at the time. Navistar also obtained an option to allow them to buy the remaining two-thirds stock; that was done by April 1995. An era of mergers and acquisitions among chassis and bus body manufacturers was thus begun.
Less than a year after the Navistar purchase, the Ward brand name was phased out as part of a new marketing scheme; the last Wards were built in 1992 and the AmTran brand was phased in late in the 1992 model year. The Navistar purchase led to some changes in the product lineup. The Patriot was not continued as an AmTran, although another factor leading to its discontinuation was General Motors' departure from full-size school bus chassis production after 1991; the Patriot (as well as the first Thomas Vistas) had been built on a GM chassis. Navistar ownership also changed the look of the Volunteer conventional; once available on chassis from several manufacturers, post-1991 Volunteers were built nearly exclusively on International chassis (from 1992-1998, Ford was a rarely ordered option). When Freightliner started production of school bus chassis in 1997, AmTran was not available with a Freightliner chassis option; Freightliner had just purchased chief competitor Thomas Built Buses.
AmTran to IC
In 1999, AmTran announced plans to build a new facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma that would employ as many as 1200 people. Production of Type C buses would move to Tulsa, but the Conway facility would continue production of the Type D models.
In 2000, AmTran introduced the IC, a fully integrated conventional school bus. The first models were badged "AmTran", although within a short time, the buses were badged "International" with the company taking on the identity "International Truck and Bus" from late 2000 to 2001 model years. These buses had small "American Transportation Corporation" lettering on the left-rear. After the 2002 model year, Navistar phased out AmTran and International Truck and Bus in favor of IC Corporation.
Successor IC Bus ended full-scale bus production in Conway in 2010.
When Ward Body Works filed for bankruptcy in 1980 and became AmTran, school bus production continued after the reorganization. Due to the established brand identity, the decision was made to initially retain the Ward name on school bus products; the AmTran name would be used on non-school buses.
During this period of time, Ward produced a product line of both full-size and small school buses. Among them, the Volunteer conventional proved the most popular. The Patriot was introduced as a replacement for Ward's previous Type B product line. Although designed with a similar engine compartment and driving position as a Type B, the Patriot was considered a Type C due to its size and capacity. AmTran had little success with transit-style buses; the Ward President was a design dating to the early 1970s. In 1990, the Ward President was replaced by the Ward Senator, which had a more driver-friendly chassis design. However, the Senator was released against low-cost transit-style school buses like the Wayne Lifestar and the Blue Bird TC/2000.
When the AmTran brand was introduced in mid-1992, most of the Ward product lineup was retained. The Volunteer conventional was supplied nearly exclusively with chassis from parent company Navistar; the Ford B-Series was offered as an option, but was discontinued after 1998 when Ford ended production of school bus chassis. The Genesis (branded as Genesis by AmTran) was otherwise the 2-year old Ward Senator with minor cosmetic upgrades. Beginning in 1995, they were branded as the AmTran Genesis. The slow-selling Vanguard was dropped at the end of 1996 in an effort to concentrate on full-size buses.
After not producing a rear engine Type D school bus since the early 1970s, AmTran introduced the AmTran RE in 1996; it was branded as the AmTran RE, not Genesis.
The Genesis was updated, moving the entry door closer to the front bumper; its roof decals were switched to the AmTran brand from Genesis.
The Volunteer was re-branded the CS after receiving a new front body design that replaced the Ward control panels, windshield, and entry door.
The Genesis was renamed the AmTran FE after a front-end redesign; the grille shrunk in size and the quad headlights were replaced with ones shared with the CS and RE.
The CS received an updated hood design (still based on the Navistar 3800) and was renamed the AmTran IC.
The RE received a redesigned dashboard and interior control panels for improved ergonomics.
AmTrans were produced in the former Ward factory in Conway, Arkansas. In 1999, AmTran announced plans to build a new facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma that would employ 1200 people. The conventional buses would be built at Tulsa, but the Conway facility would continue to produce the rear engine and front engine models. Corporate successor IC Bus ended bus assembly in Conway in January 2010, but continues to use the facility for parts fabrication and production.